Adventures in Bird Ringing

Adventures in Bird Ringing.

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Adventures in Bird Ringing

So this weekend involved a rather cold & chilly start – 7am on Saturday morning with the frost still very much on the ground I left for my first bird ringing session of the year. I’ve only recently started going bird ringing with a small group of friends from my old job at the college, but just find it fascinating so thought I’d share a bit about it here.

Bird ringing in the UK is managed by the British Trust for Ornithology – if you’ve not come across them before think the serious & scientific version of the RSPB (see the link below). In order to do bird ringing you have to be licenced, a process which takes a lot of training. I don’t have my licence but go out with some very experienced and licenced people and doubt I’ll go for my licence, at least in the short term. The chances are that I won’t really want to do any on my own so there’s not really much point.

Nationally there are around 2,600 licenced ringers who collectively ring (or recapture) about 90,000 birds a year. Internationally there are many more and all the international ringing schemes link up, mainly to track migrations. Bird ringing isn’t just a good excuse to get up at silly-o’clock in the morning and play with some birds, there is a real purpose to it. The level of data about bird populations and their movements around the country and beyond has made birds one of the best studied & understood species groups and the data from ringing projects has helped us not just to understand birds but changing environmental patterns, something only possible with years of vast amounts of high-quality data.

So, what do we do, run around with big nets trying to catch birds out of the air? Have some sort of secret whistle which lures them down to us, Mary Poppins style? No! We put up large nets called Mist Nets which are pretty fine mesh nets strung quite loosely between two poles. The birds then fly into the nets and are captured (hopefully!). Getting the birds back out of the nets can be one of the trickiest problems. If they’ve flown in quite slowly it’s not normally too difficult to gently tease them out of the net, but if they’ve gone in at speed or struggled it can get quite difficult to work out how to get them out, not withstanding the fact that they’re also usually trying to peck you or scratch you at the same time! The worst one I’ve seen so far was two Great Tits who’d flown into the net very close to each other and then proceeded to have a huge fight while in the net. You could argue ‘why don’t you just cut the net’ but (a) mist nets are very expensive and (b) you might not be certain you had got all the net away from them. I’ve done mist netting for bats before and its reasonably simple to get them out of the nets, but with birds its much more complex – all the feathers can get hooked around the net. To be honest it’s this bit I get most stressed about.

Once we’ve finally got them out of the net they then get placed in a small canvas bag. With a couple of nets up you can easily get 10 birds at one go so the bags are used to make sure you can get the birds out of the net quickly and into the safe & dark environment of the bag where they generally get much calmer.

We then start processing the birds. Back at ‘base’ the bird is taken out of its bag and checked to see if it has a ring on its leg already. If it has then the number is logged and if not we need to ring it. A bird ring has a unique identification number for that bird. There are different sizes for different types of birds, but the important feature is that ID number. Putting a ring on for the first time is rather scary, you have a tiny bird in you hand and a great bit pair of pliers that you are squeezing a metal band around its leg with, but the pliers are special ringing pliers so you actually can’t crush the birds leg or over tighten the ring. Once ringed you can then look at the bird. This is the bit I like most, as it feels such a privalege to be able to see these birds so close up & handle them. This time I got to handle a Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Dunnock, Blue tits, a Nuthatch, Starling, loads of Greenfinches and a Long-Tailed Tit.  Some are happier about this process than others – dunnocks seem to be quite chilled out about it all whereas blue tits are vile – constantly pecking & scratching at you, and even those little beaks hurt!

After checking the birds over we then take a series of biometric data about them. This includes the sex (not always possible for all bird species) & age (normally adult or juvenile – again with some birds its much easier to tell ages than others and its a real skill (and takes a huge amount of knowledge) to be able to work out the different tricks for ageing the species. We also take wing length measurements and weigh the birds. This information is particularly useful for recaptured birds as it is possible to track how the bird is changing – whether it is feeding well, has just migrated etc. Some birds take a bit more working out than others, but one of the guys I go out with is extremely knowledgeable – to the point where he was able to tell us that one particular starling we had caught had travelled over from Scandinavia as it had one un-moulted feather – a feature which only birds from Scandinavia would have.

And then when all is complete we can release the bird off!

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my little ramble through the world of bird ringing, its certainly something that I’ve found hugely enjoyable and rewarding. Pic below is of a dunnock from Saturdays ringing session, proudly displaying the ring that I had just put on it.

BTO – Image

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The Importance of Study Tours

So, I’ve just finished my last proper study tour with students (the one day visit to London on Thursday doesn’t count I’m sure!). While they take a lot of organising and mean that you’re essentially ‘on-duty’ the whole time, I’ve always found them to be one of the most enjoyable parts of my teaching job. So many teachers & lecturers seem almost afraid of taking students out of the classroom, but I’ve always found that that is where not only I do my best teaching, but my students do their best learning. Particularly with study tours where you can basically totally immerse yourselves in the subject for days at a time, actually being actively involved in the habitat/site you’re talking about is just the only way to understand a subject, particularly one like conservation.

While the 3 day London Study Tour I’ve just been on may not strike immediately as one of the most valuable study tours for a group of conservation students, for a group of people predominantly from rural areas at a college in a remote part of Hampshire, the opportunity to see how important our urban areas can be both for biodiversity and for educating the public is always a real eye-opener and a message which really can’t be shown when you’re nearest urban centre is the metropolis that is Winchester! Not withstanding that, the shear enthusiasm that I see from students when I am able to take them to the Linnean Society and show them Carl Linnaeus’ original specimens and hand-annotated copy of the ‘Systema Naturae’ or ‘Species Plantareum’ or Audubon’s elephant-folio work ‘Birds of America’ really is one of the most inspiring experiences for me I could imagine. I usually start many of my first lectures particularly with ND students imparting to them that there is nothing wrong with being a nerd – being seen to show your enthusiasm for something that is awe-inspiring – and it is fantastic that by the 2nd year of the course, these same grumpy 16-year-olds are allowing themselves to just immerse themselves in their subject enough to do just that – to say wow when something is amazing. It is something I’ve always admired in David Attenborough, that despite all the fantastic experiences he has had you can always see him with an almost child-like enjoyment of watching something new.

But ho-hum, this year I leave the Dartmoor and Cairngorms Study Tours to my esteemed colleagues. I know they, and the students, will all get as much enjoyment from them as I have always done (particularly when watching the Osprey’s from that lovely sofa outside a little-known pub nestled at the base of the Cairngorms).

Perhaps one day the dream of a course run from an open-topped bus will come to fruition.

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A bit about Aikido

I’ve got Aikido on my mind quite a bit today as I have my first grading this evening (eek!). While I’ve only been doing Aikido for a very short time and have been doing other forms of martial arts for quite a bit longer, this’ll be the first actual grading I’ll have done. Japanese martial arts (like Aikido) seem to have much more organisation, and ritualisation, behind them that the Chinese martial arts I have studied before so this is rather a new experience for me. Never mind the whole concept of wearing a Gi (the white suits many people associate with martial arts) and all the bowing (which seems to be at everything and everyone at every possible opportunity), there is a formal grading structure with set katas (forms) to memorise & demonstrate as well as being able to demonstrate good movement and the ability to breakfall properly which is quite a new approach for me. The breakfalls in particular for me are quite hard – falling over is not something that comes naturally to me! I tend to prefer to use my flexibility to hold myself out of the way of strikes or good grounding to ensure that I don’t hit the deck, but here you actually have to deliberatly fall over!

I first heard of Aikido a good few years ago through a horse trainer from Colorado called Mark Rashid. Mark is the most inspirational horse trainer I have ever seen, but what intrigued me most was the way that he was incorporating priciples of martial arts with working with horses. The concept of ‘blending’ with incoming energy & redirecting it could be seen so clearly with the way he was working with the horses at the clinics and this for me was really the starting point of my interest in martial arts. Interestingly Mark has recently published a book on exactly this subject called Nature In Horsemanship: discovering harmony through principles of Aikido which is amazing. At the time of the clinics I also had the opportunity to start training in Tai Chi (which later developed into my interest in Wing Chun and Bagua), but I have now come back to Aikido.

Aikido is an interesting martial art in that truly a fight between two Aikido(ists?) would involve 2 people standing quite still & not doing anything as it is a non-violent form which uses the energy of an attacker  and turns it against itself and encourages non-confrontation. That doesn’t mean that it is a ‘nice’ martial art or an ineffective one, some of the potential results of this defence mechanism would be pretty catastrophic to an attacker if you ever needed to use it. The British Aikido Association says of Aikido: “Aikido principles are based on exploiting the weaknesses of an opponent. Joints, posture, the mind can all be vulnerable areas when attacked or challenged. In essence Aikido is turning an opponents’ power against themselves by using the exact degree of control required to neutralise their energy without inflicting undue harm.” and I think that sums up Aikido perfectly.

So, for this evening I need to be able to show the following, :

  • Unsoku (foot movement Kata)
  • Ukemi – Side & back breakfalls
  • Randori-non-kata 1-5:
  1. Shomen-ate
  2. Ai-gamae-ate
  3. Gyaku-gamae-ate
  4. Gedan-ate
  5. Ushiro-ate
  • Kakarigeiko (simple applications) – single handed attack including Shomen-ate and Shomen-uchi.

Wish me luck!


A few useful links:

British Aikido Association –

Winchester Martial Arts Club –

Mark Rashid –


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My first blog!

Well I guess for my first blog I ought to think a little about why I’ve decided to do this!

Over the past year I’ve been struggling with depression brought on by a number of different things that have gone on over the last few years (maybe I’ll blog about this some other time) and now that I’ve started to pull a few pieces back together I thought this’d be a good way to organise a few things in my head, and perhaps see what I’ve learnt. I don’t know who else might read this, but if you are I hope you find it interesting!

So, a bit about me.

I’m an ecologist (interesting how we so often find that the first thing we define ourselves by is our work) and specialise in bats as well as working with other mammals, reptiles & amphibians. I’m currently a lecturer and run a degree in Conservation & Wildlife Management, and when I say currently I mean it – I’m leaving at the end of the autumn term which is only 3 weeks away now! As of the new year I’ll be delving into the ‘dark side’ of ecology by working for an ecological consultancy. Quite a few mixed feelings about that, but I’m hoping it’ll be a good change.

Beyond being a general nature nerd, I’m also married (no kids, but one collie dog), have my own horse (Apache, who I’m sure will be the subject of many blogs!) and am increasingly keen on martial arts – I train in Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Yin Style Bagua Zhang and most recently I’ve started Aikido.  I love music (the heavier the better!) and reading (mostly sci-fi & fantasy as as well as nature, history, science & anything by Mark Rashid).

Think thats all for now


PS – Just a quick thank you to my old school friends Jay, Catherine & Kirsty for giving me the nudge I need to start this!

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